Florida K Caleb Sturgis figures to be worthy of a draft pick. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
While the 2012 NFL Draft will likely be remembered some day as the year of the quarterback given the quick start by the likes of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, it also could get some credit for producing some top notch players at far less high profile positions.
Namely, the kickers and punters.
Yes, that’s right, the two positions that get probably the least amount of attention until something goes wrong both got much better through the 2012 NFL Draft as teams found rocket-legged kickers and punters.
In Minnesota, kicker Blair Walsh set a variety of rookie records with his accuracy from long distance as he converted all 10 of his field goal attempts from 50 yards and beyond. He finished 35-of-38 on field goal tries on his way to a Pro Bowl berth and first team All Pro honors. All of that after the Vikings used a sixth-round pick on him.
Meanwhile, in Jacksonville, the Jaguars upset many of their fans by using a third-round pick on punter Bryan Anger. Anger was taken with the 70th pick overall, the highest a punter had gone in the draft since 1995.
But the selection didn’t seem so far fetched when Anger went out and averaged 47.8 yards per punt with a solid net average of 41.3 and an impressive total of 31 punts dropped inside the 20-yard line.
In fact, the class of punters and kickers coming out in last year’s rookie class was so strong the Rams actually opted to give the two positions a complete makeover using a rookie at each spot.
While some viewed entrusting both jobs to rookies a bit risky, the Rams did it without fear as they let punter Donnie Jones walk in free agency and released kicker Josh Brown. In their stead, the Rams used the first pick in the sixth round on kicker
Zuerlein – who also goes by nicknames such as ‘Young G.Z.,’ ‘Legatron’ and ‘Greg the Leg’ was an instant fan favorite for his ability to make kicks from obscene distances. In the team’s open scrimmage at the Edward Jones Dome, Zuerlein knocked in kicks from 60 yards-plus and stole the show.
That performance wasn’t a fluke as Zuerlein opened the season by setting a franchise rookie record by converting his first 15 field goal attempts. Along the way, he twice set the franchise record for longest field goal (58 and 60 yards) and earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for hitting all four of his attempts (58, 48, 60, 24) in a win against Seattle in week 4.
In the Rams’ week 13 win against San Francisco, Zuerlein again earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors as he kicked a 53-yard field goal to send the game into overtime followed by a 54-yarder to win it in overtime.
All told, Zuerlein hit 23-of-31 field goals on the year, including seven from 50-plus yards which ranks second all time among NFL rookies.
Hekker, who became fast friends and roommates with Zuerlein fared quite well in his own right. He finished his rookie season with a 45.8 yard gross average with a net of 39.9, both good for fourth in franchise history.
Against Arizona in week 5, Hekker earned some hardware of his own as he averaged 56.9 yards per punt for a team record in a game with a net of 46 yards on seven tries as the Rams shutdown arch nemesis Patrick Peterson. That was enough to earn Hekker the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week only a week after Zuerlein earned his first.
And, much to coach Jeff Fisher’s enjoyment, Hekker’s ability to throw the ball turned into quite a valuable asset. He completed all three of his pass attempts on the season for 42 yards and a touchdown as the Rams used him on fake punts and field goals.
Needless to say, the solid first-year efforts of Zuerlein and Hekker put the Rams in position to eschew another punter or kicker again in this year’s incoming rookie class.
For teams that are in the market, though, there appears to be some intriguing options, headed by a pair from the SEC.
At punter, it’s LSU’s Brad Wing at the head of the class. Wing is native Australian and grew up playing Australian rules football. He’s had some off the field issues in the past year but his track record in the bayou makes him an intriguing option for a team that might want to spend a draft pick on a punter.
Other punters who could draw interest from teams include Louisiana Tech’s Ryan Allen, Oklahoma State’s Quinn Sharp, UCLA’s Jeff Locke and Ball State’s Scott Kovanda.
As for the kickers, it’s Florida’s Caleb Sturgis who seems to have generated the most pre-draft buzz. Sturgis was 24-of-28 in his final season in Gainesville on his way to first team All American honors.
Other kickers who could hear their names called include Portland State’s Zach Brown, Nebraska’s Brett Maher, Florida State’s Dustin Hopkins and West Virginia’s Tyler Bitancourt.
1. Brad Wing, LSU
2. Ryan Allen, Louisiana Tech
3. Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State
4. Jeff Locke, UCLA
5. Scott Kovanda, Ball State
Sleeper: Dylan Breeding, Arkansas
1. Caleb Sturgis, Florida
2. Zach Brown, Portland State
3. Brett Maher, Nebraska
4. Dustin Hopkins, Florida State
5. Tyler Bitancourt, West Virginia
Sleeper: Brett Baer, Louisiana-Lafayette